States Let Inmates Work Off Debt in Fines, Fees

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Inmates in Virginia’s Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail are allowed to do community service to work off the debt that they rack up in fines and fees on their way through the court system, Stateline reports. Under the debt-relief program, developed by the City of Charlottesville and two surrounding counties, the inmates’ debt is reduced by $7.25, the state’s minimum wage, for each hour they work. Inmates put in hours at jobs, such as clearing trash or maintaining parks, for various government agencies. The judges, prosecutors, court clerks and jail administrators who developed the program say it helps to keep people from being thrown into a spiral of debt with little or no way of paying off their fines and fees, particularly as interest on the debt mounts.

“It doesn’t take long for court fines and fees to build up on people and if you create a mountain that’s too high to climb, people give up hope,” said Charlottesville Judge Robert Downer Jr. “This [program] lets people meet their obligations and holds them accountable but it gives them a way forward.” Other states have similar programs that are aimed at helping people dig out from under court-ordered debt that the national Conference of State Court Administrators warns often cannot be paid off and can even trap people in a “modern-day version of debtors’ prison.” Georgia, New Mexico and Washington state, for example, let people work off debt with credits commensurate with the minimum-wage does. Michigan in some cases allows people to reduce their debt by meeting education requirements like getting a GED diploma. It can be challenging to start programs because courts in many states are largely dependent on the money from fines and fees to finance their operation.

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